Lessons Learned: Clearing Title and the Obstacle Many Helpline and Legal Services Clients Experience

By Darling Garcia, Director of Operations, Elder Law of Michigan, Inc., and CERA Project Specialist

windows-house-bushes-brickIt has been 13 years since I graduated from law school and these years have been filled with rewarding lessons that have allowed me to have personal and professional growth. As a young attorney, I started my career as a judicial clerk, a solo practitioner, and ultimately a legal services attorney (both as a Legal Aid attorney and a Hotline attorney). As cliché as it may seem, the most profound and meaningful legal experience is, by far, my experience as a legal services attorney.

As we all know, legal services attorneys are expected to handle several legal cases in various legal fields, rarely are provided with administrative support for the cases, and are always ready and willing to handle a new case even if it means working the weekend. Legal services attorneys, by the nature of our work environment, can spot legal issues that might turn into impact cases or identify any undercurrent that are affecting the demographic we serve.

Awhile back, a client walked into a legal service provider with the following situation: Client bought his home under a land contract, which had been fully paid. The seller recorded the land contract[1] but never issued a warranty deed to client. Five years had elapsed since the land contract was fully paid, client never had a need for warranty deed. Client had been paying property taxes and kept up with insurance and other upkeeps that were needed for the home. Three years earlier, client’s spouse had a health crisis that disrupted the financial stability for the household. This financial disruption turned into downward spiral that threatened the client’s ability to maintain a basic need: shelter. By the time client reached the point of seeking legal counsel, the client faced the following: 1) property tax foreclosure, 2) local housing code ordinance violation-failure to repair house, and 3) a wheelchair bound and convalescing spouse needing proper home modifications.

As the attorney assigned to the case, it was clear to me what needed to get done and I quickly demanded specific performance of the land contract and alternatively planned for legal action to be filed and prepped for a quite title action. In due course, all the issues the client was facing were getting resolved and I began to see a drastic change in the client’s demeanor and facial expressions. Tax foreclosure was delayed and the client entered into a payment plan to resolve the foreclosure. The most challenging issues were the failure to repair the house and home modification. Local resources were “technically” available to client and in theory, client by utilizing these local resources could receive an interest free loan to get the roof done (major repairs included new roof, weatherization of the entire home, and ADA compliant modifications) with weatherization funds and local grants to help with the cost for modification. In practice, these resources were not within client’s reach. The various organizations and agencies that managed these local resources had policies and procedures that required proof of title to the home and this requirement kept client away from resources.

Persistent advocacy with the various organizations and agencies, and legal skills eventually resolved this client’s issues. Soon thereafter, as in many legal aid cases, a usual suspect/a pattern began to emerge and lack of clear title to real property prevented many clients from utilizing resources available to them. A demand for specific performance on the land contract and a quite title action ultimately provided the client with a deed to the house. However, the most impactful approach was to form partnerships with the organizations and agencies that managed the local resources. The partnership allowed for a meaningful dialogue and a place to advocate for changes in policies and procedures so that other clients could receive the much-needed help. These are the lessons I learned:

  • Ask questions and ask more questions. Clients know if they own or rent their home. Clients are very descriptive and can give you clues as to how they “acquired ownership” to their home. It is imperative to ask questions so that you fully understand the client’s issues and learn to connect the dots. Many times, clients present relatively minor issues but the more questions you ask, the easier it will be to identify root problems.
  • Advocate and form partnerships. As attorneys, we are trained to handle legal issues and can advocate for our clients. However, often times, our legal and advocacy skills need to be modified to achieve a broader impact. The impact of a prolonged outcome when we litigate a case (even in cases where all the facts are in our favor) is often a key factor for clients not wishing to pursue legal recourse. Forming partnerships is therefore essential to creating feasible outcomes for clients.
  • Adapt and plan for the inevitable. Learn to adapt to the limitations that are either generated by the client or the circumstances and counsel clients for worse case scenarios. Early in my career, I discovered that clients genuinely appreciate clear vision of how things are likely to unfold in their case and they plan for the best and worst case scenarios.

In Michigan, a quite title action in brought in circuit court and pursuant to MCL 600.2932,a broad authority is given for actions to quite title and “any person, whether he is in possession of the land in question or not, who claims any right in, title to, equitable title to, interest in, or right to possession of land, may bring an action in the circuit courts against any other person who claims or might claim any interest inconsistent with the interest claimed by the plaintiff, whether the defendant is in possession of the land or not.” Additionally, actions brought pursuant to MCL 600.2932 are equitable in nature and therefore the court reviews all factors to reach its equitable decision. MCL 600.5801 provides the limitations on actions. The statute provides for different time periods for filing a quite title action depending on who is the plaintiff and who is the defendant, however, generally, a quite title action must be filed within 15 years.

I hope that wherever you find yourself practicing law, you can develop and build partnerships with other organizations to better help and serve clients.

[1] In Michigan land contract purchasers obtain equitable title, legal title remains with the seller. The property can still be sold, encumbered and can be the subject of tax liens and foreclosure even if purchaser obtains equitable title. Enforcement of a land contract in Michigan is generally handled under contract law.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *